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Recent reports of a leak of a highly toxic chemical compound, PCB, in a Queens school and of continued, severe overcrowding in many of the borough’s schools have no doubt caused concern among some Queens parents.

Parents and other members of the public should know that these issues are symptoms of a larger problem. New York City spends far less on its school facilities than other large urban districts in the U.S., according to a new report, “Not Making the Grade: The Growing Crisis in New York City’s Public School Facilities,” produced by two school workers’ unions, 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union and Local 94 of the International Union of Operation Engineers.

Children’s achievement in school, as well as their health, depends on school facilities providing safe, sanitary environments conducive to learning. Research shows, for example, that children attending schools in subpar condition score lower on standardized tests. But New York City has in recent years slashed the budget for school maintenance and operations by more than $50 million. The city now spends a mere three percent of its overall education budget on facilities, a third or less than the amount spent by other large urban districts such as Chicago, Miami and Las Vegas.

The city’s failure to place a higher priority on the condition of its school facilities is apparent in continued school overcrowding, which is most severe in Queens and Staten Island. It is also evident in the city’s slow response to the threat posed by PCB-contaminated or potentially contaminated light fixtures and building caulk in schools around the city.

This inadequate funding of school facilities is shortsighted and possibly dangerous. PCBs are a banned toxin known to cause cancer and hinder children’s neurological and cognitive development. Delays in removing light fixtures potentially contaminated with PCBs from classrooms, cafeterias and guidance offices may pose an unacceptable and unnecessary risk to our children, teachers and other school staff, including the janitorial workers who clean our schools every day.

Cuts to school custodial budgets also risk costing taxpayers more down the road because postponing maintenance and repairs now can lead to the need for pricier repairs later. Overcrowding can similarly drive up future costs by increasing the daily wear and tear on school buildings.

Also hit hard by the inadequate funding for school facilities are the men and women who work hard every day to keep our school buildings clean, sanitary and running well. New York City’s schools have 5,000 cleaners represented by 32BJ and 1,000 engineers represented by Local 94. As city funding cuts have forced schools to significantly reduce custodial staffs and supplies, the workers who remain are struggling to keep schools up to par with below-par resources. The harm is compounded by the indignity of the city’s denying these workers any raises, even for cost of living, for more than five years.

Parents and taxpayers in Queens depend on the city to ensure that our school buildings provide a healthy, clean environment where children can learn and succeed. When the city fails to provide sufficient funds for that to happen, children, teachers and other school workers suffer the consequences.

Hector Figueroa is secretary-treasurer of 32BJ.


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